The Guardian 20 July, 2005

Carr's tunnel vision

Peter Mac

Seemingly obsessed with boosting vehicular transport systems at the expense of public transport, the Carr government is adamantly denying evidence of dangerous conditions within and around Sydney's hugely controversial M5 underground east freeway.

The freeway was originally proposed as an above-ground system, but its route would have bisected and largely destroyed the beautiful Wolli Park, one of the last small fragments of vegetation in pre-1788 condition.

After loud and vigorous public protests, principally from local residents, the Carr government decided to construct the freeway under ground. The tunnels were designed with mechanical equipment to vent car exhaust fumes longitudinally through the tunnel, and with two vertical emergency stacks along the route, to extract fumes and smoke during an accident or major maintenance.

However, in what looked very much like a spiteful gesture, when the tunnel was built in 1999 the government declared that installing filters to remove any emissions from the emergency stacks was too expensive. As a result, any fumes emitted through the stacks are now belched straight into the air of the surrounding suburbs.

To make matters vastly worse, a new government report has found that for nine months until April last year the tunnel's operators, Baulderstone Hornibrook/Bilfinger Berger, vented approximately 400 cubic metres of fumes per second out of the stacks, even though there was no emergency or maintenance work that would have justified the practice.

The Road Transport Authority (RTA) changed its regulations to allow this to happen, but has denied any wrong-doing. The tunnel's maintenance contractors agree with them, stating proudly in their publicity that: "…levels of pollution inside the tunnel are well within internationally accepted forms. Air is moved around the tunnel by jet fans and axial fans at portal crossover points, and is exhausted at the tunnel stack".

But that's not all. The new report, which was prepared by the Department of Infrastructure, Planning and Natural Resources (DIP&NR) has also found that carbon monoxide levels within the tunnel have breached standards set by the World Health Organisation (WHO), endangering the 100,000 motorists who use the tunnel every day.

Carbon monoxide levels exceeded the safe level over at least eight hours, on ten occasions during the year in which DIP&NR tested the tunnels. The RTA has dismissed this, arguing that most motorists get through the tunnel within 15 minutes.

The WHO levels were set using a 15-minute measuring period, but it is not clear whether this is the maximum period allowable for excess carbon monoxide to be present within a tunnel, or the maximum period that motorists are allowed to be within an excessively-polluted tunnel.

And there's more! The DIP&NR report found that there was no emergency response plan to deal with external pollution control, and that neither the quality nor the flow of stack gases were monitored.

Denial mode

In a remarkably arrogant response to the report, the RTA has denied there is any evidence of inconsistencies between their performance and the requirements for operating the tunnel. It has also challenged the authority of DIP&NR to carry out investigations into the tunnel procedures.

The government has been equally recalcitrant, even though it has clearly failed to meet its obligations to those who use the tunnel, and those who live in the vicinity of its exhaust stacks.

But the government's failures go beyond its obligations to residents of the tunnel area, or even the state. Car exhaust fumes are a major contributor to atmospheric problems which now pose serious threats to the world's weather and natural systems.

The inclusion of filtering systems for the stacks, and for the whole M5 tunnel ventilating system, would have not only dealt with the legitimate requirements of local residents and tunnel motorists, it would also have made a small, but worthwhile contribution to dealing with these larger problems.


The NSW government does not seem to be switched on to this line of thought. Carr recently announced the government's intention to build a $2 billion sea water desalination plant at historic Kurnell, on the other side of Botany Bay from one of the M5 entrances.

This sort of facility was chosen over the simpler option of collecting Sydney's rain, and/or recycling its waste water. The desalination plant would use up vast amounts of electricity, which for many years would almost certainly be provided by the existing power stations.

These generate electricity by firing coal, a process which produces massive amounts of carbon dioxide, contributing to atmospheric problems which result in long periods of drought, which in turn lessen our water supply.

And at the moment the policies being pursued by the NSW government are helping to hold this very nasty vicious circle together. Wake up Carr! The people of NSW — and the world — can't afford you.

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